Trees of life (Soteno family)

Tree of Life depicting the Conquest of Mexico by Oscar Soteno at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas Populares

Mexico has a unique pottery tradition which is known as the Arból de la Vida or Tree of Life.

It looks something like a candelabra and did indeed develop from such. However, Trees of Life do not contain places for candles and can be better appreciated as a kind of folk sculpture.

Originally, Trees of Life were made to depict the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With the “tree” as the background, figures of Adam, Eve, the serpent and God at the top usually appear, along with other decorative details, which can be quite dense and elaborate. There are two places in Mexico that make them, but the most elaborate and best known come from the town of Metepec, west of Mexico City and just east of the capital of the State of Mexico, Toluca. Although being overrun as a bedroom community for both Toluca and Mexico City, the center of Metepec still hangs onto its rural handcrafting heritage, filled with pottery workshops, all working with local clays.

Tiburcio Soteno in his workshop

The best-known family  making these Trees of Life is the Soteno family, which has several workshops in Metepec. The family’s prominence began with matriarch Modesta Fernández Mata, who began experimenting with decorative pottery. She has since been followed by four generations, who have specialized in these Trees. These generations continue experimenting, not only with sizes (ranging from miniature to colossal) and colors, but also with themes. The most traditional still focus on Adam and Eve, but many others have since been done, including Day of the Dead, the birth of Christ, courtship and marriage and even the pottery of Metepec.

Oscar Soteno with work that is traditional in theme but not in form.

Today the patriarch of the family is Tiburcio Soteno, whose work has been exhibited all over Mexico, various locations in the United States and even Europe. He is followed by Oscar Soteno for his artistic ability, who created a tree to honor Modesta when she died.  His works have been exhibited to about the same scale as Tiburcio’s.

Although the trees’s forms and decoration have become more sophisticated, their making has changed little. Each is molded by hand from local clays, working in small, often poor lighted workshops in family homes. But the speed in which Tiburcio and Oscar can shape arms, faces, flowers, animals and more is amazing, especially considering how lifelike these touches are.


(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia)

(Video in Spanish)


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